Coach Speak: In-Game Adjustments with Darryl Stanley

How do you make changes mid-stream?

In the inaugural episode of Coach Speak, host Jody Avirgan talks with Washington DC Truck Stop, DC Breeze, U24 National Team, and Maryland men’s coach Darryl Stanley about how to make strategic or tactical adjustments during a game.

Coach Speak: In-Game Adjustments with Darryl Stanley

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The transcript of the show is available below.

JODY: You know, we’re pre-recording. If you wanna say something again, you can stop, you can rephrase.

DARRYL: That’s awesome.

JODY: Welcome to Coach Speak, a new podcast from Ultiworld, where I’m reaching out to some of the top coaches, in the game, because if we can’t play, we can talk about coaching and what it takes to build and run a successful team, some practical advice and maybe some trade secrets too. Thank you so much for doing this.

DARRYL: Thank you. I’m excited!

JODY: My name is Jody Avirgan. I’ve played ultimate since middle school, spent about a decade playing for New York’s open team, Pony. I played a year of the MLU. Remember the MLU? I’ve done a lot of coaching along the way as well at the high school, college and national level and now I host a podcast about Frisbee coaching. Each episode begins with me asking a coach about their least favorite coaching cliche.

DARRYL: I think it’s controlling the uncontrollables

JODY: Darryl Stanley doesn’t like the cliche about how some things are just uncontrollable because maybe it gives players a pass on what they can and can’t accomplish on the field.

DARRYL: When I work with younger players, I realized that that still holds a lot of weight for them and it’s probably because at 17, 18, 20, that’s important to know, like maybe it’s the first time you’ve heard this.

JODY: Right. And everything feels uncontrollable when you’re 17 or 18.

DARRYL: Right. Your emotions are everywhere.

JODY: Darryl has coached the U24 open team, DC Truckstop, DC Breeze, Maryland University. It’s funny that he talks about uncontrollables as his coaching cliche, because I think of Darryl as one of the most in control coaches in ultimate. He’s one of these people who just puts in the hours, watches endless amounts of tape. It seems like yet as an angle and an answer for everything that can happen on the field. And that’s sort of the angle of this conversation. Each episode of coach speak is going to focus in on one specific aspect of the game. With Darryl we’re focused on in game adjustments. Here we go.

So I want to just start off by maybe positing a scenario that a lot of us have ended up in as players and as coaches. Let’s say you’re in a game against an evenly matched opponent, someone who you think is going to give you a tough game, but you give up that classic two breaks going into halftime or two breaks coming out of halftime. But you give up that two break run at a sort of critical moment, but maybe not too late to make adjustments. What do you say in the huddle or what’s going through your mind in that scenario?

DARRYL: We’ll have a pre-huddle almost always, right? The captains and the other coaches, if there are any. I’m thinking like it’s seven-five, eight-six, I’m not panicked yet. So I think for me that means that I probably have one or two key adjustments, if I get them right. You know, swap one player for another. I think when I get it the most wrong is when I see or we identify collectively, like there are seven things wrong. I don’t deliver those seven things. But if we’re doing that, that probably means that we’re probably very unsure about what’s going to solve this game and the games where I’ve made the biggest adjustments with the biggest comebacks. I made two changes and that was it. And, you know, we wind it on universe.

JODY: So are you sort of implying that it’s not so much the actual change that you made, but more just like you make some sort of change? I mean, if you’re down 7-2 a lot of things are going wrong, right? So it’s not like there’s one silver bullet change, is there?

DARRYL: I think there is. I mean, to me, there’s a balance between unsettling your players. Like yeah, okay, if they were all automatons, I could make 17 changes, right? All these minute changes, we can make every change that was thought of we’re going to make it, and they’re gonna execute it perfectly. It won’t shake the confidence, nothing will go wrong. And then you’ll have a great game plan. Like that’s a video game. But in real life, I found that your players’ confidence might be shook. Their ability to execute might be shook. If you take them too far in their comfort zone, they’re going to be thinking too much or something like that. So I think the less is more approach, you know, the silver bullet thing, I think making an adjustment, making it simple and making it confidently and you’ve got to probably get the right one, right? You can’t just go in there and, Oh, Hey, we’re going to force back in now. And the team feels so much better unless that’s truly what’s going to solve the problem.

JODY: Well how do you feel about changing the force? I mean, it is the like the lowest hanging fruit of in-game adjustments and I go back and forth on whether sometimes that is the one or sometimes it’s just like, maybe we want to come up with something a little more nuanced.

DARRYL: Right. It’s fascinating. I think that you shouldn’t escape a half without having tried all the forces that you have, unless one is really obviously working. You know, if you’re talking about evenly matched opponents, there’s always that lull or that false security as a coach or captain that you get from trading blows. Like, Oh, look, that was not high pressure point. Was it? I mean, you got to ask yourself, if they’re scoring very consistently with that quote, pressure unquote, you know, how often are they looking to their second look? How often do they go to their third look? If they’re not, but your players are right there, then that’s like a false pressure. You’re close, but you need to tweak something. And so I think that the force is a good thing to switch if you don’t know what’s going on.

JODY: Right. And it’s also, if you mix things up in a first half of an evenly matched game, it maybe then gives you some data points to when you have to make a critical adjustment down the line and say, Oh man, we did switch to force middle and it unsettled them in this way and maybe we cast our lot with that.

DARRYL: Hundred percent yes. Yeah. I mean Ring this season, with Truck Stop, I think it’s the quarter finals. We’re down a lot. I think it was 12-6 was how bad it had gotten. So clearly we’re up against them. And at one point, somebody made a mistake on the force that we were applying and I took note of how difficult it made that throw that allowed me to make another change. And we ran with that and we got back, like, I think it was 13-11 is as close as we got, which is nuts. We were losing the whole way through. And that’s an evenly matched opponent.

JODY: I know it’s a mix, but do you tend to adjust X’s and O’s or do you tend to adjust headspace and the sort of emotional, mental side of the game?

DARRYL: I was always X’s and O’s up until last year. Yeah, it was the first time I really started to think, I was in an area long enough – DC, where I was coaching teams for three, four seasons. And I was starting to see the longterm impacts of my coaching. In my stops in Philadelphia I was doing a lot of two year stints. So I didn’t really always see like, okay, here’s the longterm development that you’ve caused. Here’s now your team’s strengths and weaknesses, you know, in macro. It would be hard to pivot away from because of how you’ve been coaching them. So I think I was so like, not leading with the emotions, not coaching with emotional awareness. I mean, I did, but not explicitly more implicitly. It hurt my teams. And I think that like Truck Stop, for instance, is it at the level where I could keep devising a bunch of X’s and O’s, but it’s not about that for them. They need mentality. With Maryland this last year it was about mentality. Maryland two years ago, when I made nationals, it was about X’s and O’s and a little bit about mentality, but they already had a great mentality so I didn’t have to do anything with that. So I think right now, I’m trying to get a good blend going, but for me it probably feels a lot more like I’m going very far into the emotional side, compared to where I had been.

JODY: I feel like I’ve noticed that in myself and a lot of coaches, I know. Maybe it says something about the kind of people who play ultimate or go into coaching ultimate but I feel like a lot of people do that. They start very intellectual, start very Xs and Os, start very sort of practical and they have to learn that lesson of like, sometimes you just need to go in a huddle and say six, really intense words and just get people fired up in one direction or another.
So that said, I know you like to geek out on tape and I know you like to get into the weeds on strategy and the minute details. So like when you decide to make a strategic adjustment, is it something that you’re seeing in the game or is it something that’s like popping into the back of your head that you saw on film a week and a half ago?

DARRYL: Oh, man. Before 2019, I was so much worse at the in-game adjustment. I think everything came from scouting. I think I won the majority of my games from 20, whatever 15, when I was in my first head coaching year to 2018, I won the majority of them on scouting, like almost exclusively. So like the most recent example, I think it was like the 2019 college regionals, this Wilmington game against Maryland we’re backdoor quarters and we’re playing Wilmington. We had just eliminated them the year before, which felt great to go to nationals. But this year we’re down 7-2 and there, it was a tape thing that allowed me to make an in-game adjustment. I finally saw why they were losing against Pittsburgh a couple of weeks prior at Eastern’s or some tournament like that. And I was like, wait a minute, oh, they completely changed their strategy because they’ve had these major injuries. We have to do this now. And we made that one change. I told my players, I galvanized them cause they were pretty demoralized at that point and it was there. So I would say that 90% of the time it’s about what I’ve seen on film that helps me do in-game adjustments. But this last year I’ve gotten better, I think, at in-game adjustments.

JODY: Yeah. So a lot of what we’ve been talking about is stuff going wrong and stuff can go wrong in a bunch of different ways sometimes in sort of unexpected ways, but like, do you think that it’s possible to prepare and practice for different ways that things can go wrong? I mean, do you do scenario work that set you up for the kinds of in-game adjustments we’ve been talking about?

DARRYL: There’ve been times where I’ve put an agitator on the other team who like causes chaos, fouls, you know, lots of calls, tries to distract the other team. I don’t do it very often, but I’ve done game simulations with like my college team that wasn’t used to observers in 2016. So I made sure that we got the local observers for a game. I got a bunch of club locals and, you know, I made a couple of agitants. Like I added it all in to try to see where their mental space was.

JODY: Do you think that that works? I mean, you know, I’ve played a lot with, as a coach and a captain with like, okay, this team’s down a break, or it’s 15-13, and now let’s play. I go back and forth on how effective that can be.

DARRYL: I think it depends on your team. If you’ve got a team of competitors, that’s a great thing. I mean, Truck Stop is a really competitive team. They fire up for any sort of challenge like that. That like sharpens their focus. And I think other teams, you know, maybe for them, if it’s not fair, feels arbitrary, then they don’t put their effort into it. Or they’re willing to distance themselves immediately from a negative result. They didn’t ever get into it. They don’t feel that pressure because they’ve already decided, this was trivial. You made that up and I don’t care. And if I start to win, sure, of course I’ll brag about it, but I didn’t so it didn’t matter.

JODY: One thing when things start to go poorly in a game and you have to make some adjustments, it creates this vacuum for opinions. Right? So all of a sudden that pre-huddle that you talked about, maybe like two or three other players who aren’t captains, start to wander over and say something to you, or like the team that’s huddled while you’re having your pre-huddle. You can tell there’s like five different people were voicing their opinions. So like, that said, you know, maybe somewhere in those five voices is a piece of wisdom. So like how do you sort of crowd out those voices that will come into that vacuum while also, I guess, making space for the right ideas?

DARRYL: Sure. I don’t think that that’s always the time where you’re gonna get the most ideas. I think you need to be honest with yourself as a leader in a leadership group. And see, do we already feel like we have an answer if we’re totally uncertain and we should go to those two to three other voices, right? The people who we trust, the people who have experience, the people who are just vocal anyway, you know, and if you make space for them all across that season, those other players, those non captains, and where you give them some sort of leadership role they’re already influencing and testing their thoughts and ideas throughout the game at like a sub-level to your, like, whatever your big strategy is or your big tactics are, they’re already implementing pieces underneath, and then they can bubble up to you and be like, Hey look, Darryl, Hey, it really worked when I forced flatter on this guy, I know that we were trying to, you know, force no around or something but when I was flatted here, I think that might work. And you, you know, you consider that. And they’ll tell you that throughout the game. So I think it’s about making space for them throughout the whole season so that they’re already feeding that information. And it’s not like. In the critical moment when everyone’s stressed, that all of a sudden, you know, five people who you’ve been ignoring that whole season are now like, Hey, look, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. And you don’t even know if you can trust their voice. Like you haven’t tested their voice before you, you don’t have that rapport. So I think less is more. If you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing, then get more opinions. But if you feel like you’ve got a beat on what’s going wrong, I say, trust your instinct, deliver a simpler message and make those core changes.

JODY: One kind of classic shift is going D for O. Or basically saying, if there’s a few breaks that have not gone our way and our O lines struggling, let’s bring in a D line and see what happens. Do you do that and kind of, what’s your philosophy around that?

DARRYL: I am D for O, the first break.

JODY: The first break?

DARRYL: Yeah. Unless it’s a five second break or something, you know, where they haven’t even expended any energy, but I pull the hook immediately every time.

JODY: I mean, the worry there is that it undercuts your faith in your O line, which is this thing that you’ve built up, you know, throughout the whole season.

DARRYL: Consistency is important.

JODY: Consistency in doing that move? Is that what you’re saying?

DARRYL: Yup. And therefore they know that’s how you do it. And therefore it’s not a slight, it’s not a current, a front to there confidence. It’s like, no, this is what coach is always going to do, its fine.

JODY: And are you drilling that in practice too? You’re having your D line get some O reps?

DARRYL: Oh, all the time. I mean, I’ve been really fortunate with DC, especially our D lines are really good at offense. And I know like my advantage was scouting, right? Like maybe the opponent has something figured out. Maybe they’ve got key match-ups that I’m not seeing that are helping them turn the tide. Maybe they’re unsettling one of my players. Well, go ahead and go do that against like 14 people. Oh, and do it against 21 players. You know, they’re probably not going to be able to provided that that second group has enough continuity and can play good offense together. And in my DC teams have been really, really great at that. College too, honestly.

JODY: And will you do that kind of wholesale swap before you’ll do a kind of, let me swap in two or three key players?

DARRYL: Yes, it’s almost always a wholesale change. There are exceptions. Like, you know, I have, especially talented players or if two of my O-liners are clearly not the problem and they’re like really carrying a lot of water, I will keep them in there. Like Rowan and Tyler Monroe, Markham, Nate Pryor, Allen Colic like names like that have been guys who I’ve kept on like, Hey, you’re still getting it done, it’s obvious.

JODY: So those guys you named fits nicely into my next question, which is kind of, I don’t know what you call it, but like I’ve played on teams that call it a diamond line, but basically that, like, this is our top line, it’s often a mix of O and D players, but this is our, we need to score a point or we need to get a break, line. And I know there’s lots of philosophies around when to use those. So let’s say it’s not an emergency situation. It’s a you’re in control. When do you like to utilize a kill line like that?

DARRYL: I think just like where I feel like I’ve probably maybe one of the most extreme early hooks for the old line guy. I think I’m one of the more extreme, like, don’t run that line kind of guys. I like depth. I believe that I want more of my players getting experiences and being good so that if, and when it comes down to it, I call that line or the more papers thin my team is, if I don’t have a deep team, no matter what I want. Maybe only have, you know, 16, very experienced players, comfortable players, healthy players, whatever, then I’m quicker with that line in a nonemergency situation, like a regular season, right before half, you run it once or twice, something like that. Or maybe right out of half.

JODY: We’ve talked a little bit about scouting but it is such a bigger part of the game, now. I would certainly say like, probably one of the biggest changes since I kind of stopped playing high level club was just the amount of tape and the amount of scouting that goes into each game. And I think it’s brought up a sort of dilemma, which is like, people not wanting to put certain things on film, especially early in a season. And that ties into what we’re talking about here, because it’s like, you want to win a game and you may have a trick up your sleeve that will help you do that. But then maybe is there part of you that’s like, well, I don’t want to go to that junky zone that we’ve been playing around with. I don’t want to bust out this sort of combo that we’ve been experimenting with because it might be something that I don’t want on film.

DARRYL: You know, I think that’s the game that you play when you are competing for a championship. You know, I think the rest of us, the reps are too beneficial and let it be, you know, or you might be overestimating how much anybody else cares about what you’re doing or can see what you’re doing. So I would say that, yeah. You know, Nick Kaczmarek, I think, has been quite well known for that. I think at Nick’s level, it makes a lot of sense.

JODY: But Truck has those aspirations every year, right? To win a championship?

DARRYL: Of course. Yeah. I think that we don’t play that kind of meta game yet. I mean, look, we haven’t even been to the championship game. You know, we got one semifinal my first year and we’ve been quarterfinalist ever since. And Revolver doesn’t care to watch our film in those years, like they beat us because they were better at that moment. And I think that for the majority of coaches, you need to let that go. I think you need to go out there and just make sure your team is comfortable and confident. And if, and when after several seasons of being comfortable and confident, you find yourself competing in the top four, maybe you should start playing that kind of meta-game.

JODY: There’s this phrase, I think I’m butchering it, but I think it’s called the “Wit of the Staircase”, which is this thing where like, you come up with the perfect thing to say to someone as you’re like walking out of the room and walking down the stairs, you know? Does that ever happen in coaching where it’s like the middle of the next round? You’re like, Oh, we should have forced the middle or like, Oh my God, we could have exploited this. Like, I mean, that’s a challenge for players to flush that stuff. I mean, how do you process that?

DARRYL: Well, that’s part of maybe why I don’t go back and watch too much of my own film. I think I can second guess myself to no end, but honestly, often I think that moment comes quickly. Like it’s at the end of the game or I’ll have a moment, you know, we’re doing a high five line or maybe there’s a, you know, a spirit circle or something where I have enough time to myself. I don’t have to perform even though I am present. I think at that moment is when I think like, I feel like, I know there’s that one key decision that I made that was wrong, if it was in my control. If it was out of my control, I will ruminate on it for a long time. Like, you’re talking about. Like, if I got the doors blown off me 13 to 2 or something like that’s the time where I will definitely replay it a ton of times, but, you know, if it’s a close game, I feel like, Oh, I think under the one decision I would like to take back and I put it down and I make sure I don’t make that mistake twice. I mean, the video era is fascinating. That’s what I call this version of ultimate. I’m a video era coach, right? Like I didn’t play high enough level where my experience, I mean, I played one season with Philly Rage Philly Street, and that was a lot and it got me further along than most mid tier club players, of knowledge. But I would say that to reach the levels I’ve had with coaching, if it wasn’t for the video era, I’m not who I am this quickly, if at all, probably at all. And it’s just the video era. It’s changed everything.

JODY: Have you found that hard to translate stuff you see on video to coaching, to like getting players, to get their head around it?

DARRYL: Oh, I’ve over engineered way too much in my career. You know, I’ve sought the perfect tactic way too much and way too often. And I’ve, I’ve confused my players at times. They’re playing it and they’re fine, ish, but when there’s trouble, I realized that I’ve taken them so far from their instincts and so far from the comfort zone at times that they don’t have a good answer. Like now I have to come up with that answer too. And that’s a bad place to be. It’s better that you can give them something. Maybe that’s like 80% as tactically, as sophisticated and let them feel 100% like they know all the little tweaks that they can make. That’s where I’m at now. And I have yet to go a full competitive season with testing that thought.

JODY: Right. I completely agree. I mean, that’s like what. Analytics is posing in a lot of other sports too. Right? You can have the perfect silver bullet answer from the data or the video work, but if you can’t articulate it to a player and have that player own it, and then do what you want every player to do, which is like, stop thinking about it and just play it, like you’re never going to connect the dots. And, you know, I feel like that’s the next big frontier in many ways for analytics work is how do we now almost balance it and articulate it and bridge that gap between, you know, the guy who’s sitting in the dark, in the back crunching numbers and the players who actually have to make it happen.

DARRYL: You’re Sam Hinkie, who’s like, here’s the most efficient way to pull this off. You’re like, Hey, wait a minute.

JODY: Right. That said you know, it goes both ways, right. Players are getting smarter and there’s like those examples in baseball and certainly in basketball of players who know how to speak that language and crave it, you know, and want to know that they’re 24% more efficient from this spot versus, you know, three feet to the right.

DARRYL: Shane Battier loved it.

JODY: Right. Exactly. And he’s like one of the big examples of players whose careers are transformed by that stuff. Anyway, uh, maybe in the third season of this podcast we’ll have an analytics conversation. I don’t think ultimate is totally there just yet, but video works certainly is pushing in that direction.

DARRYL: Agreed.

JODY: All right so the end of the show, now you get to talk about your favorite coaching cliche. Lay it on me.

DARRYL: I think something that I think about a lot is, and this is like a coach of philosophy, I feel like I’m more of an implicit coach, right? Like I set culture with example by trying to model and be very consistent with that. Like, I don’t always want to go out there and be prescriptive and say, this is who we are and what we’re doing. I think there’s value in that, but I think it’s more important to perform it consistently. So I don’t know if that’s cliche or not, but to me that’s definitely something that I’m always thinking about is like being more performative, not like faking it per se, I just mean to say that like I’m executing the attributes that we want. Not just discussing them.

JODY: And that’s in terms of, okay, I want our players to talk to each other this way so I’m going to talk to them in this way, or I want to build this kind of culture. Like it’s in that way?

DARRYL: Hundred percent. I think one example would be, you know, like I delegate a lot to my players. So I was talking to you about these other thought leaders on your team that aren’t recognized captains or something or whatever other names for roles like that you have. Like, I invent roles for these players and, you know, I will give them to them and I get more opinions, I groom the next level of leadership, you create this kind of like middle layer that can continue to execute the thing that you want. So I think through that. That’s a great example of me saying like everybody’s opinion matters, because look, this person is the leader of that line, this person’s the leader of this particular process, this warm up, this, that. And everybody’s like, Oh wait, Darryl acknowledges me and takes the time to listen to my ideas no matter what. He never tells me I’m wrong. He never tells me to shut up. He just takes what I’m saying and works with it. And I think therefore, I start to see my conversational style, my huddle style, whatever, modeled down the line, and therefore I can kind of go like the engine’s kind of starting up, I can back up.

JODY: That’s great. All right. This has been really fun.

DARRYL: Thanks, Jody

JODY: Darryl Stanley of Truck Stop, DC Breeze, Maryland. He was also the assistant coach for the 2019 U24 team, a position I held at 2015 Worlds and our mutual head coach, Bob Krier is coming up on a future episode of this podcast, as are a bunch of other coaches for Team USA and lots more.

That’s it for the first episode of Coach Speak. We are dropping two episodes every week for the month of August. So go check out my conversation with Tiina Booth, the legend, someone who’s been thinking about the mental side of ultimate long before anyone else. It’s a great conversation and it should be in your feeds right now. Shout out to our producer, engineer, and mixer, Claire Bidigare-Curtis. Special thanks to Charlie Eisenhood and everyone at Ultiworld. Check out all the coverage on the site and starting next week, we’re going to be doing bonus subscriber only conversations on the site, and we need your help. These are going to be from the player’s perspective so we need your stories. If you have played for one of the coaches we’re talking to, I’m sure there are a lot of you who have played for Darryl. What is your most quintessential Darryl Stanley story? Or if you just want to share another notable coaching moment, email us. We can keep you anonymous, if you’d like. [email protected]. We’ll talk about some of them maybe with Tad and Pat from Sin the Fields or some other folks from Ultiworld. This is a chance again, for players to share your side of the coaching equation. Email us, that’s [email protected]. My name is Jody Avirgan. Thanks again for listening and we’ll see you soon.

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